AN INTERNATIONALLY renowned planning expert who is helping to rebuild Louisiana and Mississippi following devastating hurricanes is to turn his attention to a new town in the Highlands.
Florida-based Andres Duany will help draw up the blueprint for a community between Inverness and Nairn.
Mr Duany, the principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company (DPZ), has worked on over 300 designs for communities throughout the world, including Baton Rouge in Louisiana; Lost Rabbit, near Jackson, Mississippi; West Palm Beach, Florida and Providence, Rhode Island.
He is also one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) movement, which promotes traditional, pedestrian-friendly cities and has influenced the building of Poundbury, the Prince of Wales's model village near Dorchester.
Mr Duany was appointed by Moray Estates, which plans to build about 5,000 houses, schools, shops and other services on a 350-acre site near Tornagrain, south of the A96 trunk road. Lord Doune, of Moray Estates, said of Mr Duany: "He's a leader in his field and it's a privilege for us to be working with him."
DPZ says its approach is to consult with local people and public and private agencies in design sessions. As part of this process - known as a "charette" - the firm works with planners, architects, government officials and others to develop individual plans for each area.
The Executive is reviewing how to improve public involvement in planning.
Mr Duany said: "I am delighted to be working in Scotland for the first time and excited by the estate's approach and vision. I am looking forward to engaging with the community to learn more about local circumstances."
Andrew Howard, the managing director of Moray Estates, said: "We feel the estate and local communities will be able to play their part with such a constructive and innovative design process. It's an approach that fits closely with the ethos of the Scottish Executive's new planning bill. By involving people at a very early stage, it's possible to iron out many of the problems and issues that can arise as part of the normal planning process."
Mr Duany is due to visit the site next month and his team has already studied the design of Grantown-on-Spey and Dunkeld, which are seen as good examples of planned Scottish towns.
Moray Estates has previously said the town, provisionally called Castle Stuart, would be based on 18th-century planned Scottish towns and 20th-century English garden cities. It would feature a town square and pedestrian routes.
New houses are needed to cope with the predicted future growth of Inverness, which is already one of the fastest growing cities in western Europe. The population has doubled in 30 years to over 60,000 and is expected to double again in the next 30 to 50 years.
The 10,000-resident community would be one of the biggest settlements in the Highlands outside Inverness. At present the main towns are Fort William, which has fewer than 10,000 residents, Nairn with 8,500 and Wick and Thurso, both under 8,000.
Simon Cole-Hamilton, the chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, said commissioning DPZ gave hope that the development will have world-class potential.
But Roddy Balfour, the local councillor, said the scale is inappropriate. "There is a lot of ill-feeling towards this plan."
He added: "Bringing in a high-powered chap like this may be a way to ride roughshod over everyone. We will have to double our efforts to make sure our voices are heard."